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Riva Audio Turbo X review: This Bluetooth speaker goes to 11

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You've probably never heard of Riva Audio. I hadn't. But this audio newcomer, founded by Rikki Farr, who's had a storied career in the music business, has created a higher-end portable Bluetooth speaker called the Turbo X. It's one of the best sounding portable Bluetooth speakers currently on the market, although it's a little too pricey at $350. (It's available online in the UK for around £225, but not in Australia. A rough conversion would be AU$470.)

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7.9

Riva Audio Turbo X

The Good

The Riva Turbo X delivers excellent sound for a portable Bluetooth speaker, offers strong battery life, and has a built-in speakerphone with echo cancellation. It's water-resistant and has a proximity sensor that allows you to wave your hand over the speaker to light up the buttons on top. A USB port on back allows you to charge your smartphone or tablet.

The Bad

It's expensive, and you probably need to buy the optional $30 carrying case if you plan to take the speaker on the road; battery drains a little even when speaker isn't in use.

The Bottom Line

While it isn't a bargain at $350, the Riva Audio Turbo X is one of the loudest and best sounding compact Bluetooth speakers available.

The speaker's design is elegant and straightforward but -- from the outside, anyway -- it doesn't scream premium speaker. (I'm not huge fan of glossy finishes, and the Riva features shiny plastic on top.) The speaker comes in black or white and -- while I'm not sure which color I prefer -- I'd say that the white model would be well suited for a kitchen or bathroom, and would blend in well with most modern decors.

The Turbo X is splashproof thanks to a hidden rubber gasket on the bottom the speaker that you can pull off and use to cover the ports on the back of the speaker. It's an innovative way to add some water-resistance, but the rubber gasket didn't quite sit completely flush against the back of the speaker when covering the ports and was slightly off. Not a huge deal, but when you're dealing with a $350 speaker, you expect that sort of stuff to be perfect.

The speaker does have some nice bonus features. There's a proximity sensor that allows you to wave your hand over the speaker and have the sense touch buttons on top of the speaker light up, which comes in handy at night. A USB port on back allows you to charge your smartphone or tablet. And there's even a special phono mode for connecting a turntable.

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The speaker weighs in at 3.5 pounds or 1.6 kg. Sarah Tew/CNET

Additionally, the speaker's equipped with a high grade speakerphone with a second echo canceling microphone -- it works well -- and there's AptX streaming for devices that support this feature. AptX is supposed to make Bluetooth streaming sound better, but it's debatable how much of an impact it makes, but more and more wireless speakers are offering it.

While fairly compact, the Turbo X weighs in at 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg). It has a lot inside its chassis and the folks from Riva tout its 45 watts of power and combination of three full range proprietary drivers, plus four custom dual piston bass radiators. Battery life is rated at an impressive 26 hours. The speaker doesn't come with a carrying case, but an optional one is available for $30.

On a side note, the unit does appear to sip a little bit of battery even when not in use, so if you leave it unplugged the battery will drain and you may find yourself with a dead speaker that needs to be recharged. Perhaps that can be corrected with a firmware upgrade.

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The back of the speaker. Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance

The speaker has a fairly neutral, well-balanced sound profile and, as I said, it's sounds really good for what it is and shines compared to the competition at higher volumes. Most of the compact speakers perform well at lower and mid level volumes, but when you crank things up, the speaker restrains itself to keep from distorting and certain frequencies, particularly the bass, tend to get clipped. However, the Turbo X doesn't sound like it's pulling back on the reins the louder you play it.

It can play very loud and manage to sound full and retain good definition with minimal distortion even when you crank it to eleven. That's right, in a nod to "This is Spinal Tap," you can tap the "T" button on the unit or use Riva's free Ground Control app for iOS and Android to engage the turbo mode and take the volume to 11, giving you an additional 7db of sound (volume 10 is rated at 75db). Via the app you can also check the exact amount of battery life you have left.

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The free Ground Control app. Sarah Tew/CNET

While the speaker manages to hold together relatively well at 11 (there is a bit of distortion and harsher-sounding music does sound even harsher, sometimes unbearably so), I'm not sure how often you'll actually use the turbo mode (it does reduce battery life down to 6 hours if you leave it on continuously so it's best to use when you've got the speaker on AC power). But it's there for taking.

So is a "surround" mode, which is designed to create a wider soundstage (the company's ADX Trillium audio technology is the force behind the more open sound). The problem with all these compact Bluetooth speakers is that their drivers are so close together that you don't get any stereo separation. The Riva's surround mode does help create a wider soundstage but for real stereo separation you'll still do better with a pair of separate Bluetooth bookshelf speakers.

You'll also do better with a pair of wired speakers that cost less. Which is why I say that the Turbo X sounds really good "for what it is," a portable Bluetooth speaker. CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg and author of CNET's Audiophiliac column was a little less kind when he wrote an article comparing an old JVC boom box to several Bluetooth speakers, including the Turbo X.

He said: "Armed with ADX Trillium audio technology and seven custom ADX transducers, the Turbo X wasn't bad, but the JVC PC-X100's size advantage was obvious. The little Turbo X's bass had nice impact, but the midrange and treble sounded like a small table radio. Dynamic range was compressed and limited, so the JVC PC-X100 stomped all over the Turbo X."

That sounds pretty harsh, but everything's relative. Steve doesn't like any Bluetooth speakers and for him to say the Turbo "wasn't bad" is something of compliment. Congrats Riva.

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The speaker from another angle. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

Riva's "it goes to 11" turbo mode is a gimmick, but hey, the Bluetooth speaker market is crowded and at least the Turbo X manages to stand out from the pack a bit with some interesting extras and strong performance, which includes battery life.

I only wish it cost less. While there's a lot to like about it, I wasn't quite sure I was ready to go out and drop $350 on it. But others looking for a beefier portable speaker that can be used at home or outdoors, may feel it's worth dropping a little extra dough on.

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7.9

Riva Audio Turbo X

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Sound 9Value 7